CAMDEN — Darlene Lannon didn’t know it at the time, but her son’s interest in science would spark a new club affecting many Camden students over the years.
Eight years ago, Lannon was helping him fill out paperwork for a free, competitive, residential science program called Summer Ventures in Science and Mathematics. Part of the questionnaire asked about involvement in the school science club, and her son, then a student at CamTech High School, informed her that there was no science club.
Surprised, she promptly started one open to both CamTech and Camden County High School students. Her son was accepted in spite of his lack of science club experience. The Camden club stuck, even after Lannon’s four children graduated and went off to college.
Years earlier, Lannon had teamed up with her friends Ted and Roberta Manzer, agriculture teachers at Northeastern High School, to start Camden’s horticulture team. That was 18 years ago, when her daughter was 9, she said.
Twice their team has been the highest-scoring horticulture team in the country, she noted, and that team now comprises just one branch of the science club. Lannon said her daughter is finishing up a doctorate degree in plant pathology, which she traces directly to her involvement with the horticulture team growing up.
Lannon and her husband Brian Lannon — co-owners of Lannon’s Animal Hospital in Elizabeth City — have kept their empty nest bustling with local science club members, and she credits the club with prompting at least five students to pursue and land jobs in science-related fields.
Every year, the Lannons hope to add more science competitions to the club’s schedule. They drive seven-passenger vans just to facilitate kids’ trips to various competitions, and they often personally foot the gas bills.
They have taken high schoolers as far away as San Diego, Calif. — where the national horticulture competition takes place — as well as to at least six other states for various competitions. They fundraise for the club when flights, such as to California, are involved, she said.
Every Wednesday during the past school year, Darlene Lannon cooked dinner for 14 students competing in the oceanography competition called Blue Heron Bowl and led them in studying for the event.
Every Thursday during the spring semester, the couple opened their house up to 15 Envirothon competitors, with Darlene Lannon cooking and Brian Lannon leading the natural science studies. Ten Envirothon students were from Camden and five were from Northeastern High School, she noted.
Sundays were devoted to horticulture practice with Northeastern’s team, led by the Manzers, and on other days, Darlene Lannon coached vet science teams — unrelated to the science club — at Camden, Northeastern and Pasquotank County high schools.
Fridays at 3 p.m. during the school year, Darlene Lannon helps with science club meetings at the school.
She said she enjoys giving students the opportunity to interact with other high schoolers in the area, and also enjoys cooking for them and facilitating that bonding time.
“Teenagers can eat a lot of food, especially the guys,” she said with a smile, noting that she religiously reads grocery store flyers and makes “a lot of pasta dishes.”
She said she pushes the students in their studyies, but that they do well with absorbing all the information. “They’ll tell you it’s hard; I work these kids hard.”
“She’s willing to give up a majority of her time (to) get these students going in the right direction,” said Daniel Ingersoll, a science teacher at Camden County High School for the past three years who also helps with science club.
“She’s given me this supreme level of confidence that I didn’t have three years ago,” Ingersoll said. “She’s probably the biggest inspiration in my life right now. Just to watch her work is amazing.”
He added that she has fostered his scientific creativity, as well as that of the 60-to-70 students involved in the club.
The Lannons brought students together as a family, Ingersoll added, by “literally opening up their doors to them.”
Many of the students became involved with science club after one competition, and the realization, “Wow, Mrs. Lannon really cares about us,” he said.
Some of the students “have a rough home life, where they don’t have that support,” he noted. “She’s definitely kind of the motherly figure for a lot of students.”
Darlene Lannon credited Ingersoll with recruiting students the past several years to join the club, since her own children are no longer in the school to spread the word.
She said she’s never had any problems with students at her house nor on trips out of the area.
“I’ve never had to call a parent in the middle of the night,” she said. “They’ve been great. They’re a great group of students.”
Brandon Suncin, a rising senior who has participated in the science club for the past three years, was captain of school’s team competing in the N.C. Department of Transportation model bridge-building competition.
This marked the first year Camden fielded a team for that, Suncin, 17, said. Darlene Lannon contacted two men who work for a bridge-building company in Virginia. “They came down on several occasions and they helped out tremendously.”
Darlene Lannon expressed pride that the bridge-building team placed third in the state, and noted that the horticulture team ranked second in the state, and Blue Heron Bowl competitors also won third place in the state.
“Personally I can say she had a massive effect on my life,” Suncin said of Darlene Lannon, noting that he is introverted and rarely leaves his house after school.
Studying for competitions two or three times a week at the Lannons’ house provided new opportunities: “I made quite a few friends, and I’ve learned quite a bit of information as well,” he said.
Darlene Lannon was quick to note that other volunteers make science club possible, including Debbie Hill, a retired Camden County schoolteacher who makes desserts to complement her dinners and often drives kids to competitions, also paying out of pocket. Steve and Pam Horacek led the robotics team, a part of science club their son Brandon Horacek initiated, and Matt Denney will take over that team this school year, she said.
The Manzers “are just brilliant” in their subject matter and in reaching kids, she added, and the Camden principals and superintendent are supportive of the club.
Competitions teach students to deal with both success and disappointment, she said, and provides opportunities for “brain athletics” for students who might not be athletically inclined.
“Some kids, that’s where they shine — learning and studying and shooting out that information,” she said, adding, “the look on their faces when they win” is “the best thing in the world.”